Skip to main content



The Art and Power of Being a Lady


As we enter the new millennium, there are more women than ever in the workforce, in positions of power, being elected to public office, and playing central roles in major industries. We admire those who are at the very apex of their careers, women who have beaten the odds and remained ladies. Our most-admired Hollywood star is not a male action hero but the genteel leading lady Julia Roberts. Our number-one talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, is not a sleaze peddler but a paragon of compassion and social consciousness. And two of the best athletes in the world are teenage sisters Venus and Serena Williams—ladies who have revived the game of tennis with a supernatural combination of strength, grace, and style.

Aside from their remarkable achievements, these women also shine for the way they conduct themselves in many aspects of their lives—with grace, dignity, and a constant awareness of how their behavior impacts others. They’re living proof that how we succeed is just as important as success itself.

Unfortunately, though, in this time of enormous prosperity and infinite possibilities, we’ve become socially lazy. These women are very much the exceptions, not the rule.

In our culture today, we place an increasingly high premium on professional success, earthly possessions, and outward appearance—at almost any price. The media gives us what we allegedly want: stories ad nauseam about celebrities’ new looks, new mansions, new lovers, and trips to rehab and jail (not necessarily in that order). And let’s not forget those chart-topping TV shows like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, Survivor, and Temptation Island — programs that unabashedly glamorize greed and betrayal. While some conscientious public figures try valiantly to shine their spotlights on people who do good, we are still far more fascinated by the tawdrier side of life. The culture of fame and consumption is upon us.

Then there’s our private lives. Women have made great social progress in the last forty years (and it’s nothing to sneeze at!). With the positive change though also came some confusion: it seemed that anything at all went . . . for men as well as women. What kind of world are we living in if the most intimate and personal details of an affair between an intern and the leader of the free world can become the subject of after-dinner conversation for everyone on the planet . . . when we have been told to behave like men in the workplace to get ahead and are still expected be the perfect combination of Martha Stewart and Pamela Anderson when we get home (who wouldn’t be confused?).

The advent of feminism brought many welcome changes, from a woman’s right to work and receive equal pay to her being able to choose whether or not to be a mother. It also gave us the opportunity to select our partners based less on their ability to provide and more on their character. These changes called into question many basic ways in which men and women interacted on a daily basis, leaving many of us uncertain whether it was gracious or insulting to open a door for a woman. We applaud the early feminists—we wouldn’t be where we are today without their struggles for equality—and questioning those behaviors pointed out something important: that how women respond to them is more significant than the tradition that mandated them. But we believe that it’s now safe to evaluate some of these old chestnuts from the vantage of the progress we’ve made. We feel it’s silly not to trust women to be able to tell the difference between a courteous gesture and being treated like a helpless maiden.

There’s also the simple fact that the pace of life is a lot faster. In this day of “Be all that you can be,” “Every woman for herself,” and “She who dies with the most toys wins,” there’s no denying we’ve lost sight of some of the more noble attributes that used to be held in high regard, particularly among women, such as: dignity, discretion, courtesy, humility, and social consciousness. Qualities that the women we hold up as examples today possess in abundance. Qualities that our mothers were speaking of when they told us to behave like ladies.

* * *

We know what you’re thinking: why on earth are we dusting off such a seemingly prissy, nineteenth-century term to describe our ideal for the twenty-first-century woman? Some of our closest, smartest friends balked at the word when we first told them about this book. But we thought more about it. The word lady is supposed to be the female equivalent of the word gentleman. Though most of our male friends aren’t landed gentry, they know what we mean when we call them gentlemen, and they know it’s the highest of compliments. Then we thought of the women who come to mind when we think of the word lady. Women of style and substance—women we admire and who inspire us. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that no other word captured exactly what we were after. Whether a woman is Jane Doe or as famous as Katie Couric or Gwyneth Paltrow, living gracefully, as a lady, brings her admiration and respect from others—and that’s where the power comes in.

In fact, the word lady has already begun making its own comeback. Ladies First is the title of a hit song and best-selling advice book by rap artist, talk show host, and actress Queen Latifah. In describing soccer star Mia Hamm and her World Championship U.S. Women’s Soccer teammates, sports commentators frequently used the word ladies, referring to their remarkable off-the-field conduct as well as their playing. Foot Locker created an ad campaign of women athletes captioned with one word: ladylike.

These examples illustrate perfectly the kind of ladies we mean. So if you still think a lady is a snob, a prude, or a doormat, try telling that to Queen Latifah. Which makes the need for this book apparent—with the word lady being tossed out as much as it is, we feel it needs to be defined once and for all in a way that reflects our independence, our new challenges, our achievements, and our modern attitudes toward relationships, sex, work, parenting, and our places in the world.

In other words, we wanted to make the word lady—and the values it stands for—relevant again, and show its importance for all women. So we did some research of our own. We interviewed and surveyed women of all ages, professions, backgrounds, and ethnicities about what being a lady means to them—at work, in relationships, at home, in their communities. We created an online survey and forwarded it to our friends, asking them to e-mail it on. Nearly two hundred women took part: women from locales as diverse as New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Seattle, as well as a multitude of rural and suburban areas. Our survey respondents were single mothers, former welfare recipients, actresses, politicians, massage therapists, newscasters, writers, artists, lawyers, teachers, librarians, students, activists, secretaries, social workers, and more. What they all had in common was that they answered “yes” to the survey’s first question: “Do you consider yourself a lady?” Their thoughtful and candid responses play a large part in the book.

Being a lady is not about having the best designer clothes; drinking a wine spritzer instead of what you really want (like a Guinness on tap); batting your eyes and playing coy instead of using your brains and wit to flirt; taking your boss’s shortcomings lying down; or pretending to be fulfilled by less than enough.

It is about standing up for what you believe in, being true to yourself, showing an appreciation and regard for others, and seeing beyond the superficial junk we are fed every day of our lives. It’s a tall order, but certainly not impossible, as you will read.

When you leave this world, you are not going to be remembered for your fabulous wardrobe, how many cars you had, or your ability to still fit into the jeans you wore in high school. You’re going to be remembered for what you contributed to your world, however small or large. You’re going to be remembered for being a real lady.

So go ahead and turn the page. But check your preconceived notions at the door. Our kind of lady is not what you might expect.

Excerpted from THE ART AND POWER OF BEING A LADY © Copyright 2001 by Noelle Cleary and Dini von Mueffling. Reprinted with permission by Grove Press. All rights reserved.

The Art and Power of Being a Lady
by by Noelle Cleary

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802139418
  • ISBN-13: 9780802139412